By Soyia Ellison, Habitat for Humanity International copywriting services manager and volunteer caravan driver
We set off Monday before the sun came up: 60-some Habitat staffers and volunteers in 24 brand-new Chevrolet vans, headed for New York and New Jersey neighborhoods devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
Rolling up I-85 North with a squad of motorcycle policemen flashing their blue lights alongside us, our caravan must have made quite an impression. And that was the idea.
As Sandy fades from public view, we don’t want people to forget the tens of thousands who lost their homes in the storm. They still need help — and will for months and years to come.
These vans we’re riding in will play an important role in their recovery. Chevrolet donated the vehicles, valued at around $817,000. Lowe’s and the Robert Bosch Tool Corporation provided about $180,000 in tools and cash to transform them into rolling toolsheds.
In fact, our first official caravan stop was at a Lowe’s store in Charlotte, North Carolina, where employees had filled the parking lot with what store manager Paris Lytle estimated was about 3,000 items. There were circular saws. Reciprocating saws. Miter saws. Wheelbarrows and trash bags. Chainsaws and Dremels. Ladders and drills.
“It was very energizing and a lot of fun,” said Alan Adler, who works in GM’s communications office. (GM owns Chevrolet.) “Nobody stood around. It’s like everyone was in attack mode; if a pallet needed unloading, people would just dive in. I had a great time.”Our team, with help from volunteers and staff at Habitat Charlotte and the ReStore Support Group, loaded them all onto the vans.
So did Julie Knapp, a volunteer who signed up for the trip because she couldn’t go home to Ohio to see her family this Christmas. “I love it. It’s great to be able to do this and help people,” she said.
Kip Scheidler, Habitat’s senior director of global disaster response, said the holidays are the perfect time to lend a hand. Many of the storm’s first responders are heading back home, which can be a discouraging sight for the families left behind to rebuild their lives. “The fact that we’re going to be pulling in right before Christmas with all these tools and vans and a cadre of volunteers hopefully will keep people from feeling disheartened," he said.
And when our group is gone, the vans will stay behind so that Habitat affiliates can continue rebuilding. “It isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon,” Scheidler said. “The affiliates are going to work on this recovery for years.”
First, though, we’ve got to get the vans to them.
As I write this, we’ve stopped at a hotel for the night. But we’ll be back on the road, bright and early, for what promises to be a long day.
New Jersey, here we come.